Russian Internet Censorship Is Forcing Citizens to Turn to the Dark Web and VPN for News and Social Media
Russia is rapidly and completely entering a state of digital isolation
In just under a month, Russia's Internet has become nearly faceless after hundreds of news outlets and social media platforms disappeared from the web, and global tech companies like Netflix and Apple have limited their services.
Earlier this month, the Kremlin banned Twitter and Facebook from the Russian Internet and blocked access to Instagram on Monday. Russian Instagram influencers posted tearful farewell videos urging followers to move to platforms they can still access.
Russia has quickly and completely entered a state of digital isolation, denying millions of citizens access to accurate information and online space to express their opinions. As Moscow attempts to stifle dissent and control the narrative of its invasion of Ukraine, digital and human rights organizations are concerned about the future of the Russian Internet.
In addition to the Kremlin blocking access to numerous online platforms and news sites, several companies and media outlets have been forced to suspend operations after the country passed a law that makes it a serious crime to publish information the government deems "false.
The law also comes as the Kremlin's attempts to spread massive amounts of misinformation and disinformation about the war in Ukraine have led major platforms such as YouTube to remove or flag state-controlled Russian media.
TikTok announced in early March that it would block Russian users from livestreaming or uploading new videos, citing the "fake news" law. But according to a report Tuesday by nonprofit technology transparency group Tracking Exposed, the company has gone much further in restricting content for Russian users.
TikTok appears to be blocking 95 percent of content from Russian users on the platform, including the accounts of French President Emmanuel Macron and the United Nations, as well as the accounts of the platform's most popular stars such as Charli D'Amelio.
In a tweet, Tracking Exposed said, "This is the first time a global social media platform has restricted access to content on this scale."
Major international news organizations, including the BBC, CNN and Bloomberg, have also suspended their services in Russia, citing "fake news" laws.
Natalia Krapiva, technical legal counsel for the nonprofit Access Now, said, "It's a very bad situation, and we're trying to make sure people's human rights are respected." The organization works to protect digital access around the world.
Krapiva said the withdrawal of tech companies from Russia or platforms sharply restricting services could hurt ordinary Russians, as well as Ukrainians in the occupied territories who can only access the Russian Internet.
Krapiva said, "While there are clearly legitimate concerns and the need for sanctions against Russia, some of the actions now are essentially isolating and cutting off those who are in fact opposed to the war."
Russians Turn to VPN and Dark Web to Avoid Online Censorship
As people using the Russian Internet continue to become more digitally isolated, some have struggled to stay connected to the outside world by using virtual private networks (VPN), which allow people to connect to the Internet through secondary remote servers that can bypass country-specific restrictions.
Surfshark, a Lithuania-based VPN company, said its average weekly sales in Russia have increased by 3,500 percent since Russia's invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. The company said the biggest spike occurred March 5-6, when Russia announced it would take action to block people from accessing Twitter and Facebook.
Such a rapid surge means that people living in Russia are actively looking for ways to avoid government surveillance and censorship, whether it's accessing blocked sites or accessing social media such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or Instagram," said Gabriele Racaityte, a spokeswoman for Surfshark. YouTube or social media like Instagram."
According to SensorTower, a digital trends and insights company, VPN demand spiked during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The company said demand for VPN services in Russia reached a new peak of 2,692 percent on Monday, compared to the average demand in the week before the invasion of Ukraine.
As Russia increasingly restricts access to the Internet,, some media outlets and platforms have tried to create workarounds to bypass its censorship. The New York Times started a channel on Telegram to provide the latest news about the war in Ukraine. Meanwhile, Twitter debuted a dark web version of its social networking platform on Tor last week, although it did not link the announcement to the intrusion, according to Ars Technica. (Tor is software that allows users to browse the Web anonymously and can be used to access the dark Web.)
As of Monday, the Russian government had blocked at least 384 domains linked to the invasion of Ukraine since the conflict began, including the websites of global news outlets, BBC News, Deutsche Welle, Pravda Ukraine and Radio Liberty, according to VPN censorship and tracking company Top10VPN.
According to Top10VPN, a total of 203 news domains have been blocked in Russia, most of which are Ukrainian news services. The data shows that there are also "an increasing number of independent Russian and foreign services with local language sites" that are also blocked.
Despite the increase in VPN downloads, Krapiva says not everyone is using VPN services. Less tech-savvy people and others may not know about them or be able to download them, and there are costs associated with VPN services, especially those that are secure and reliable.
Krapiva said others may experience payment problems due to restrictions on certain Western payment methods as a result of Western sanctions, including the unavailability of VISA, MasterCard and American Express cards. Human rights groups warn that the risk of Russians being cut off from the global Internet remains high.
In a blog post Monday, Hugh Williamson, director of the nonprofit Human Rights Watch Europe and Central Asia, said, "Under unprecedented government censorship, millions of Russians rely on the Internet for information on current events and to communicate with the outside world. Foreign technology companies should seek to offer services and products to the Russian people to help them access the Internet and mitigate the risk of isolation."
From：On DarkNet – Dark Web News and Analysis
Copyright of the article belongs to the author, please do not reproduce without permission.